Harpooneer 2

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Murder cloud or no murder cloud, Jenny’s heart leapt to be in the sky again. As the mountain fell away beneath her, replaced by the vast dark sea and gunmetal sky, she felt that familiar shedding of cares that came with life-or-death piloting. The sky today was fantastically complex: wind currents in a dozen directions, lightning arcing through the ice crystals of the high sky, no less than three squalls drifting back and forth. Only the gas mask bumping against her right thigh, and the heavier satchel bouncing on her left, reminded her how dire things were back in the real world.

Raven was a fantastic success, though. She’d had doubts about the lift system, but the craft seemed to be gaining altitude of its own accord. In minutes, they’d closed half the height distance to the castle–all without turning around.

“Uncle Griff!” she shouted to the worried, bearded old man beside her. He nodded to show he’d heard.

“Are we climbing too fast!?”

“Not for Raven!” he yelled back. “The problem is with the sky!”

“How did we screw up the sky?”

“We didn’t!” Dr. Griffin pointed. “That did!”

At first, Jenny thought he was indicating one of the squalls. Then she realized the squall itself was just the leading line of a weather front that was shoving it from behind. The front was just a wall of air she might not have been able to make out at first…except–

–yeah. It was definitely green.

And her uncle was definitely pale. “You mean the Ash Cloud is helping our lift?”

“It’s the only thing that makes sense! It’s what happened to the last Harpooneers!”

“What?” Jenny cried. “That’s the answer? They didn’t have the right design–they just flew on the right day?”

“We’ve got less time than we thought,” Griff shouted, shooting a look down at the swiftly receding Rust Town.

“How fast is it moving?”

“Not sure yet,” he retorted. “Let me do some math.”

He was joking, somewhat hysterically, but at some point during their next wing adjustment they both started actually doing the calculations. Jenny could tell, because he always wanted to tug his beard while he worked out numbers, but couldn’t because he was strapped into the pilot bar. His arms twitched.

Later–seconds later, true, but too late to make a difference–Jenny would realize that trying to figure out the Ash Cloud’s speed and trajectory had distracted them. That, and being so far from Nashido gave them a false sense of security about anything that might come flying at them from that direction.

As it was, their first contact with the Sphere of every Ruster’s dreams was a stone whistling through the air.

“How the hell did that miss?” Jenny asked as they banked hard to starboard. “They should have hit. We deserved to get hit.”

“We have an enemy on the castle,” her uncle said with certainty.

“But the only person up there–” Jenny broke her thought off to help steady them on a long, orbiting course to the west of the castle “–is the guy we’re trying to save.”

A second stone whistled through the air and Griffin jerked them both hard backward to get clear. They were fleeing out of range, backing up from the island even as they gained ever more altitude to level with it.

Kio, Jenny thought, what exactly are you?

***

Raptor strode determinedly through the halls of the Outer Citadel, climbing down ladders and bursting through trapdoors like the captive raven was running out of time. Kio scampered in his wake, babbling all the while.

“We can’t trust Medwick to man all the artillery by himself, can we?” he asked as they paced through the lower-forward solarium. “He’s just alone with all those bone–those Neogah. They might distract him.”

“I know you and Medwick had an inauspicious first meeting,” Raptor said without turning around. “You crushed his staff in an elevator, if I recall right. But I would trust him with my life, and you must as well.”

“I, um–” Kio spoke fast, hoping to stop Raptor before he passed the next door. The wooden, iron-enforced exit to the solarium had become a barrier of untold power.

Karla was on the other side. Raptor could not be allowed to see her.

“I want to destroy them myself,” he said, affecting an expression of heroic rage. “I want to take down those Harpooneers. If I personally stop them from poisoning the world, I’ll–I’ll earn my place among the statues. The mosaics.”

He trailed off.

Raptor wasn’t moving toward the door anymore. He had turned, and was fixing Kio with a cold stare.

“My lord of Rokhshan,” he said. “Do you understand how your ancestors survived to build statues of themselves?”

Kio swallowed. His fingers unconsciously traced the lifting rune on his face.

A Neogah dove past the window, seeking some invisible prey.

“Bravery,” he stammered. “Honor. Piety.”

“Piety,” Raptor repeated. The folds of his cloak rippled in the draft. “Toward who?”

“Toward…toward you.”

“Is defiance piety, Lord Rokhshan?”

“Of…” Raptor was too close to the door. Far too close. “Of course not.”

Raptor smiled. “I’m glad we understand each other.”

Then he pushed through the door. His footsteps pounded toward the hangar, and Kio, trembled with every step, raced after him.

***

Karla was trapped. Bound in a net, bound in iron-hard claws.

In a human body she could never escape this place. She fought to remain raven, thinking of the sky, of the endless secret places her animal mind reached. She thought of the heartsphere and its infinite darkness. She tried not to think of Kio.

Her wings tried to lengthen into arms–no, she did not know what arms were–her talons into legs–she had never had legs–and every word she thought in the human tongue was poison, contaminating her, dragging her back.

The bone dragon that had siezed her was closing the distance toward Nashido. Time was running short. Her plan had to adjust.

She would get one shot at this.

The sight of the hangar soaring close–close enough to see the calendar scratches gouged into the floor–provoked panic in her threshold-trapped mind: I was out! I got out! Don’t take me back to that prison!

She forced the terror away, with the power of having no other choice. All the Rusters needed her. Only Kio could help her.

Just as the bone dragon broke hard in midair and folded its wings to fit into the cavernous open room, she saw him run down the stairs.

Her almost-human heart hammered. What was this? What strange membrane did it break through to see a loved one for the first time, after everything, everything, had changed?

Then she noticed the man with him.

The last of her raven brain could tell. Lines of darkness radiated off him. He was tall, lean, angular, clean. A predator. She, his prey, was caught in a net.

The man reached the bottom of the steps and stood with his arms folded, awaiting his meal. Kio stood behind him.

Why was Kio behind him?

She scrunched up her bird-body as tightly as she could, forcing the dragon to pull the net taut around her to keep her still.

The claws opened. Karla plummeted toward the stone floor. Right as she landed, she relinquished the barrier in her mind.

Her human limbs splayed out, tearing through the net with sudden sheer presence and size. The strands scraped her skin, but she gritted out the pain, focusing on being able to run when she landed.

What she hadn’t counted on–she realized as she straightened up–was the dragon landing first.

The creature swept over the heads of Kio and the other man with surprising grace, landing on the steps behind them and cutting off any escape. Karla tensed, ignoring the blood pooling from her cuts.

She looked Kio in the eye.

Karla, he signaled in their language. I’m sorry.

For what? she said as best she could.

The bone dragon leered. The strange man stepped forward.

“So the first Harpooneer to arrive has contaminated herself in the Heartsphere,” he said. “Medwick was right to fear you.”

The rain clouds whistled below their feet. The wind soared high above. Karla tried to think.

She heard a rasp of metal on leather and refocused. The man was drawing a long sword through a loop on his belt.

“I am sorry for your failure at…whatever you were trying to do. But the source must be protected.”

Karla looked up.

The sword flashed. The second it did, Kio, seeming to move under something else’s power, leapt for the stranger’s arm.

The blade crashed down inches to the left of where Karla had just been. The man swore in an alien language.

Karla was already on the move–one bound took her to the elevator platform that led up to her workshop. With two sharp kicks, she knocked the hinges out of two of the four cables, and grabbed one of the loose wires.

As Kio struggled with the man he’d been following, as the leather wings of bone dragons swooped in to converge on her, she rode the cable up, using the lift platform as a counterweight. The wooden slats smashed into the calendar, breaking apart on impact.

Kio had saved her life.

But how had he ever let it get this far? What had he done? What was he part of?

Karla leapt clear of the rushing cable and landed on her feet amid the braziers where the first Raven had been born. Then, nauseated from the transformation, head spinning with the weight of betrayal, she dove through the window to the roof, and kept running.

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Harpooneer 1

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For a brief instant, Kio thought he saw a black blur zipping away from the launch site atop the mountain. When he blinked, it was gone.

He refocused the spyglass on the aircraft instead. It was sitting idle on its wheeled cart while the engineers attending it had some sort of heated exchange.

“How many?” urged Raptor, at his side.

“Two,” Kio said. He had a brief yet strong sense that he should have been looking a moment before now, that he’d missed something terribly significant.

That was quickly replaced by marvelling at the power of the spyglass. Everything Raptor built was the strongest possible specimen of itself. It made Kio shiver to think of whoever was about to be on the receiving end of his ballistae.

“Where there are two, there will be more,” Raptor cautioned. “Look to the rest of the fleet. Those two on the mountains are likely only the scouts.”

“It’s easier to see them when they’re on the mountain,” Kio complained. “Those ones down in the town, I can barely tell if there are people…”

“May I?”

Wordlessly, Kio handed over the spyglass.

While Raptor scanned the island, Kio let his gaze drift upward. They were standing on the roof of the hangar, having clambered through the window of what had once been Karla’s workshop. The vantage point gave him a clear view all the way up the forward edge of Nashido.

Eleven Neogah perched there, like gulls festooning the battlements, looking for something smaller to pass by so they could pounce. They didn’t beat their wings or look around, though: just sat motionless, like grotesque gargoyles, staring down at the Big Island. Above them, dark clouds roiled in the sky. Kio saw a drop of rain ping off the shoulder of one. The Neogah didn’t move.

Raptor took his eye from the glass and shouted up at the bone dragons. “Hey! Half of you lazy fools, start patrolling the perimeter! Or are you not aware that aircraft can approach from more than one direction?”

Six of the Neogah took off in a rustle of leathery wings, disappearing around the castle towers. In their places they left a wall of crossbows, spears, and net-throwers, sharp angry large weapons that reminded Kio of the teeth and claws that had just left.

“I’m sorry you had to hear that,” Raptor said, raising the spyglass again. “It’s only that a sneak attack from the rear is how the Harpooneers took us unawares last time. I’m determined not to make the same mistakes.”

“It’s all right.” Stop the Harpooneers, he thought over and over. We just have to stop the Harpooneers. Defeat the raiders. Save the Heartsphere. Save everyone.

“And yet…” Raptor lowered the glass and gazed at Kio with a quizzical eye. “If this is a tactic, it’s a most peculiar gambit. There seems to be some sort of civil war down there.”

“A what?” Kio realized he’d have to take Raptor’s word for this. There was no way he could see all the way to the ground, even through a spyglass, without the benefit of a god’s eyesight.

“Some of the surface people seem to be holding the rest of them hostage. The fleet is holding back.”

Kio’s heart leapt. Maybe Karla wasn’t going to come after all! He wouldn’t have to fight her if she was stuck down in the city. He hadn’t recognized the two on the mountain, which meant she hadn’t gotten away.

But then he wouldn’t get to see her again. And she could be in danger from whoever was keeping people captive down there…

The Benefactor nudged him, a brotherly touch. “Come with me, Kio.”

“To where?” he shivered.

“The forward-side weapons bank.” Raptor vaulted past the workshop window, heading for the oxygen vines. “We’re going to blast those two raiders out of the sky. Hopefully, it will serve as an example to the others.”

This was good. Kio told himself this was good. He’d thought they were going to have to kill thousands. Instead they’d have to kill just two.

If only he could stop picturing them both as Karla.

“Raptor?” he asked, suddenly struck by a thought. The deity turned, already clambering up the vines. “When the ash cloud comes…what’ll we do?”

“Fly far away,” Raptor answered. “But we won’t give up this castle as long as the Harpooneers threaten it. We have a duty, Kio Rokhshan, to the entire human race.”

***

Jenny ran to the edge of the high meadow, shielding her eyes against the wind and the light from the dark clouds. The sea thrashed in agitation below. The cold wind through the heather chilled her through the thin layer of her jacket.

And Karla was gone.

“She just flew away,” she said disbelievingly, as Dr. Griffin padded up behind her.

“We have no idea what she’s thinking in there,” her uncle said. “Until we’ve been birds ourselves, it is unfair for us to comment on how Karla makes decisions.”

“Yeah.” Jenny wiped her eyes. She did feel a little foolish. “Guess I’ll ask her when I see her. I feel better with the plane being lighter anyway.”

“That’s the spirit.” Griffin let Jenny sprint past him, back to the parked plane. He too, she suspected, had a stone forming in his gut.

There was so much riding on this launch. Karla was counting on them. Rust Town was counting on them. She didn’t know when she’d understood these things, but they were true. And she would not get another chance.

“Wait.” She stopped her uncle right as he began unhooking the straps to fix himself to one side of the cockpit bar. “What’s our plan here?”

He didn’t bother stating the obvious. She watched him, half-gazing at the wall of sheer rock behind him, as he followed her train of thought. Seeing him discover that they had hope lifted some of the lead from Jenny’s shoulders as well. Where there had been fear, fire was spreading within her.

This could actually work. She felt twelve years old again. It had been a little while.

But if they’d stopped the City Council, what couldn’t they do?

“Karla hid from the last Ash Cloud inside the Heartsphere. With her friend,” Griffin said.

“Kio, yeah.” Jenny picked up the thread. “It’s what Mara and her followers were looking to do–she knew the people on Nashido had a place where they could hide.”

“If we follow her…” Griffin spread a thumb and forefinger from their landing strip to the castle, calculating a flight path. “That saves us. But what about them?”

“We’ll bring them the Heartsphere too.”

Griffin cocked an eyebrow. “How?”

“I don’t know!” Jenny threw herself over the pilot bar. “Strap in and we’ll figure it out on the way!”

Her uncle stayed frozen for one more second, then nodded. “As a scientist,” he said once he was ensconced beside her, “I still don’t understand why I should believe any of this.”

“As a man in love,” Jenny told him, “you’d better.”

***

Karla fought her way through the storm.

As a human, she’d just seen an overcast, chilly day. As a raven, she could tell that an epic storm was on its way. Just like before. The last human memory she was holding in trust was of a glittering wall of green air pushing a vast and violent wall of thunderheads ahead of it.

The air would boil with wind. Then it would turn poisonous.

She had one destination: the floating isle. There would be salvation there. It was no longer, her corvid mind could easily see, about money and power and who owned what country. It was about surviving. She would bring them no treasure but their own lives, and the Imperial marines would have to be content with that too.

The sky was tough going. Wind currents whipped her in every direction, buffeting her in directions a raven was never meant to fly. One would smack into her, rolling her sideways, then another would flip her over and send the ocean wheeling through her field of vision. Droplets fired like bolts from a bow and raked over her feathers. And somewhere beyond the edge of her vision, a dark shape moved amid the clouds. Hungry. And hunting her.

She kept her bearings by the castle, as she always had, just like the night she and the bone dragon had tangled inside the stormcloud. She exalted when she saw the dark shape getting closer. The flight felt like it had taken days.

A spinning shape shot out of the castle’s deep shadow. Before Karla could alter course, it had slammed into her.

Protect them, was her first thought. Warn them…

But she couldn’t remember who.

The thing didn’t knock her down. Instead, it stuck, wrapping her in lengths and webs of cord. Soon her wings were pinioned. She couldn’t fly.

Something took up the job for her. Cawing at the top of her lungs, Karla felt one iron claw seize her whipsawing bound form, and begin to carry her toward the flying isle, toward the half illuminated by vast glowing magic letters.

***

“A direct hit, then?” Raptor asked.

“On the first shot,” Medwick replied, one eye still on the dragon he had sent out to collect the package. “You designed the net-throwers well, your eminence. May all the raiders fall so easily.”

“A raven,” Raptor mused, catching Kio’s eye. “And this high in the sky. It must be an omen.”

Kio trembled. His legs were turning to glass. He’d ignored the black shape–ignored the one sign of Karla he could have caught to save her.

It was all his fault. His eyes passed over the castle’s defences as he shuddered with despair. He could have stopped this. He didn’t.

“Medwick, shoot down the other Harpooneers when they take to the air,” Raptor said. “We’ll go inspect this Raven, Kio and I. I believe it’s being deposited at the hangar.”

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Thanks to Lynne, David, Paul, and Thomas for their continued support.

 

Raven 3

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The road into the mountains was far longer than she remembered it. The pulleys were off-limits–too exposed, too visible from the fortified Imperial positions. They shoved Raven up the hill, inch over inch, by hand.

After a few minutes, they judged it safe to slow down. Rose’s diversion had worked. Nobody had noticed them leaving. But the commander would very likely scout the mountains as soon as he could spare men from the effort to pacify Rust Town.

For minutes after that, Karla fought off the urge to transform. The memories of Calvin and Rose vanishing under the weight of the soldiers would not leave her. She pushed harder, taking whichever corner was most precarious, whichever one Jenny and Griffin flinched from.

It almost didn’t help. On the second switchback, gritting her teeth, she felt the blackness at the corner of her eyes–the unconscious second she always slipped through to find herself in the Raven’s body.

“Help me!” she cried.

Griffin was pinned, holding up Raven’s nose, but Jenny raced into action, letting her handle drop into the grass as softly as she could. A wing folded into the body as she raced to throw her arms around Karla.

Kneeling, Karla felt Jenny embrace her, and reached up tentatively–with arms, still, not wings–to return the hug.

“No flying off,” Jenny said in her ear. “We can’t do this without you.”

“Why do you care about me?” Karla managed. “I fell out of the sky a week ago. I destroyed your plane. I’ve endangered everyone you love.”

“Don’t even start with that crap. The Torals endangered them. They are murdering thugs that make the City Council look like vegetable gardeners. You are my friend.”

“You don’t know me.”

Jenny shrugged. “I know what choice I’ve made.”

They waited, Jenny holding Karla, Dr. Griffin holding the skycraft, until Karla let out her breath and convinced herself she was staying human for now.

The clouds packed tightly together as they struggled upward. Black shapes rolled through them, and a distant rumble of thunder startled all three of them. When they passed the meadow where Karla remembered relaxing, the heather itself was still, anticipating the coming storm.

Every time a view of Rust Town opened up below, they rested on one end of the ledge, then dashed across to cover on the other side lest anybody be looking up. When Karla asked Jenny how she was doing, the girl mumbled something about being used to dragging wings around, and soldiered on.

For Karla, the burden she carried just reminded her of everything else she was dragging around. Keeping Raven’s tail from dragging in the dust. Keeping herself from thinking about abandoning Kio so much she was guilted into inaction. Twisting around a rocky ledge without enough room to move two abreast. Twisting her standards so that saving one friend was worth what Rust Town was going through. It was all the same.

The crescent mountains soared in the distance whenever they faced east. The sprawling-open sea, with the shepherd’s isle floating in the middle like a marble in a fountain, spread out to the west.

Karla focused on her steps. Moping didn’t mean Kio was counting on her any less.

Higher up the mountain face, passing through the towering meadows and up to further switchback slopes, the wind began to buffet them. They turned Raven to prevent the smallest possible face to the wind. All the while, to keep from looking at Rust or the Toral Fleet, Karla instead kept her eyes on Nashido, while the possibilities for what she’d find up there churned in her stomach.

She had lost track of time, so when Dr. Griffin called a halt, her best guess was that it was past noon but not yet afternoon. The sky remained its uniform gunmetal gray.

With a couple of seconds to look around, and to walk the perimeter of the high hill with Jenny, she had to admit that this was a good spot. They had dragged Raven higher than Karla had ever walked, up to a broad, flat headland that extended out in the shadow of the island’s highest summit. The thickets of heather and bunchgrass thinned out here, leaving a patchy blanket of soft grass spread over a face of unbroken rock. The rock itself angled up in a barely-perceptible ramp which dead-ended in a thousand-foot plunge down to the next grassy slope below. All around them rolled the silent crashes of the foamy ocean. The archipelago may have belonged to the three of them.

Karla picked out Nashido one more time. From an airstrip like this, the castle might actually be within reach.

When she and Jenny returned to where Griffin was guarding Raven, they found him fiddling with Rose’s pocket air-quality measurement device. “Can you use it?” Jenny asked.

“I think I have it worked out,” Griffin said distractedly. “Yes, I’ve got it. This shouldn’t take a minute.”

He watched the glass tube. Karla and Jenny watched him.

The wind howled around them. Karla wrapped her jacket close.

Jenny cleared her throat.

Griffin swallowed. His eyes remain fixed on the tube.

“Jenny,” he said. “Back in the tavern. I wasn’t completely honest with you. Either of you.”

Karla and Jenny shared a glance. “What do you mean?” asked the younger girl.

“I was in love with your mother.” He tore his gaze from the device to meet her eyes. “I tried to tell her and my brother not to fly for the castle that day. They wouldn’t listen.”

Jenny’s hair flapped around her face, pinned only by her knit cap. She didn’t seem to notice.

“They died on the day of the last Ash Cloud. I carried you away from the island in a boat, and we made it alive, barely. I wanted to tell you while we had the chance.”

Any number of responses churned their way through Karla’s mind. Yet none of them were the one Jenny finally arrived at.

“The last Ash Cloud?” she mouthed.

Dr. Griffin turned the glass vial to face them. The once-white paper had been tinted a dark shade of sickly green.

“Rose was right.” His words came clipped, forced out. “There’s another one coming.”

“Another…a…” Jenny struggled to form a sentence. Though frost was beginning to edge in at the corners of her soul, Karla took up the slack.

“I…thought…they were supposed to come only every thousand years. Or something.”

Griffin shook his head. “In some legends. The truth is even Mara never had any idea. I guess it’s coming back to finish what it started.”

“For what it left behind,” Karla said deleriously.

Another Ash Cloud. Why wouldn’t there be a second? The first one hadn’t wiped out everything. It had gotten the sky kingdoms, but it had missed part of Rust Town, and it had missed Karla and Kio, sheltering in the Heartsphere. The first had come without warning and left with explanation, and the second would come the same way. Who was to say it wouldn’t?

The cold, suffocated Year Zero feeling pressed in on her, and this time, Jenny didn’t catch her–the girl was too paralyzed by her own fear. Her uncle stepped through the waving heather to hold her. After a quick squeeze, though, Jenny immediately started babbling, trying to work out a solution, not making any sense as Griffin hugged her tighter.

Karla’s first realization was that Kio would be all right. That let off some of the weight. He had the Heartsphere, and he would remember to hide in it, though if one visit turned him into a cat she didn’t want to think about what three might do.

But there was Rust Town. They’d be suffocated. Most of the Torals didn’t even deserve that. Who knew why those men had come, what they needed the pay for?

“We should go back,” Jenny was saying. “We can evacuate them. If we have to get the Toral Commander to agree, we’ll talk to him, surrender, let him lock us up, whatever.”

“Jenny…” Dr. Griffin sounded lost for words. He was staring over the horizon as he stroked her hair, something rolling over in his mind. The particle-measuring device had fallen into the grass.

“They’ll never allow it,” Karla said, certain this was the truth.

Jenny rounded on her, pulling away from her uncle again. “How do you know?”

“We can’t stop the soldiers.” She didn’t know where these words were coming from. She barely felt human anymore.

“What are we supposed to do?” Tears sprang up in Jenny’s eyes. The wind blew dark strands of hair over them. “They’re going to die! Everybody’s going to die!”

The flock of birds. The green cloud. The fire.

And the bodies.

Karla gave up her human form as easily as she might have slipped off a pair of shoes. Part of her lived permanently in the bird now, or always had. Her raven form was never far off on the surface. She was never not urgently seeking to fly. Now, it was the only thing she could do.

Jenny and Griffin were watching her, but her shrinking mind was unable to make out whether or not they felt despair. She hovered in front of them, circling and fluttering, hoping they could discern the apology she meant for them. She hovered over the new clockwork raven too, sad that she would never get to fly it. It was a magnificent creature.

Such a thing, now, did Karla Harpooneer have to be.

She didn’t have any plan for what would happen when she reached Nashido. Her brain was full of sky, the remaining humanity too small to contain any plans at all. She just knew that Castle Nashido was high above and far away but still in her sight, hanging like a treasure-house perched on the roof of the world. And that Kio Rokhshan was up there, and he would help her save Jenny and Griffin and Rose and everybody else.

It would be a hard flight. But at the end was mercy.

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Thanks to Lynne, David, Paul, and Thomas for their continued support.

Raven 2

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Four of them took the cart–Karla and Jenny on the front wheels, Griffin and Rose on the rear, Calvin darting back and forth across their nose in case any Torals leapt out from behind somebody’s cabbages. Everyone kept up a breathless conversation as they dashed onward.

“Why wouldn’t our roof airstrip work?” Karla panted.

“Takeoff speed,” Jenny said. “This thing needs to be fast to get off the ground. Mountains are the only place with enough space to accelerate.”

“Indeed,” came Griffin’s breathless but impressed response. “Not to mention the altitude gain won’t hurt us. Hopefully the path will be empty without a glow.”

“Wait! We actually have to cart this all the way up there?”

“You can stop running once you get to the mountains,” Rose put in. “If we stay alive that long.”

As one, she and Griffin glanced toward the beach, their faces betraying that they wished they hadn’t. A column of smoke was rising from the former sight of the fisherman’s pier. They had no way to receive word from the delegation Adam had led down to the shore to negotiate, and no reason to thing anything decent had happened to them.

Rose’s words had another dark resonance, as well. Each of the three who would continue on past the town had a parcel bouncing against their thigh: a filter mask, based on an old Harpooneer design, dug up by the Carpenters. Guy had claimed they would work on the Ash Cloud.

“At least for a little bit,” he added, averting his eyes. “They were our dad’s. Mom only found them after the morning he…took off.”

How well did those work for the old Harpooneers? Karla thought, but took one gratefully anyway.

All Karla could think about now, though, was how much still needed to be done to the second Raven. It hadn’t been tested, or given a second inspection for any of its joints. It was still unclear where the lift was going to come from. They had a craft that looked majestic from the outside, but which, when examined for two seconds, proved to be held together by prayer. She could feel it falling apart as they bounced and jangled along the unpaved road.

But the crystal square was ahead. If they could just get through there without anyone stopping them, the Navy would never think of securing a random mountain path…

Rose was the first one to react–a squeak in her throat, followed by a gasp from Jenny, and a creative swear by Dr. Griffin. Karla pulled out of her own head to see what they’d seen.

Better Karla jogged beside her. You should have predicted this.

Yet how could she have? Nobody in town knew when the Glow was going to come.

Against the cold blue light of the crystal, she could see dozens of skycrafts, preparing, checking their landing gear, flexing their wings. Goggled and helmeted Rusters were field-testing instruments, doing final wipedowns. Some were pointing spyglasses up at the sky, awaiting the coming of the Sphere.

“What the hell is this?” Jenny pulled up hard on her corner of the cart, forcing everyone else to brake. “Didn’t anyone tell them?”

“Not everyone worked on Raven,” Griffin reminded her. “These people all think they can beat the Torals to the treasure themselves.”

“But we can’t get through! They’re blocking the whole square!” Jenny turned to Karla. “Use your Mara powers! Make them move!”

“They’re Rusters,” Rose said. “This is a Glow. They’ll never move.”

Karla only half-listened. Yes, this was obnoxious. But for her it was also a wellspring of hope. Kio was right there. All they had to do was cover the distance. And they had the best plane.

“We’re going through,” she announced. Jenny and Griffin both stared at her.

“Take it slow,” Karla said. “Be polite. We just need to make it to the other side. If we rush, we’ll start a riot.”

Their first few steps into the square collided with somebody’s unwatched bundle of wrenches. The mechanic cursed at them as Rose hastily backpedaled Raven.

“Slower than that?” Jenny asked under her breath.

“Slow and lucky,” Karla amended.

Griffin had brought along a tarp draped over his shoulders. He covered Raven lest her distinctive design attract any fortune-seekers.

Their progress through the square was agonizingly slow. They cajoled, pushed, begged and bullied people out of their way. From below, the sounds of shouts, of marching feet, echoed up the ladder toward the town. They kept pushing Raven, weaving through the channels they could find, like an icebreaker working its laborious way through leads in an arctic sea.

Three planes took off in formation directly in front of them, and the ones in front flinched but carried on. A wing fell off a craft in their path, and they raced to drag it away before its nonplussed owner could do the task himself.

The path up to the mountains looked endlessly far away, then closer, then close. Karla dared to hope they could reach it.

Shouting in the streets raced through a crescendo to a peak. Marching boots thudded onward, louder, louder–

–then loud enough to distinguish individual voices, individual shifting weapons. Panic rose among the people they passed.

“We keep going,” Karla whispered to Jenny, Rose, and Griffin. “No matter what happens, we keep going. They may not notice us.”

Jenny disagreed. “We have to stand still. Make them think we’re not a threat.”

“They’ll seal off the mountains!”

“If they take the square–” Dr. Griffin began. But before they could listen to what noble yet stupid thing he was planning, a garbled yell exploded from the edge of the crystal plaza.

Karla swiveled around. Men in plate mail and hobnailed boots were pouring into the square. Their swords glinted in the morning sun.

“I’m voting for Jenny’s plan,” Rose whispered. “We stay still and get cleared.”

“Kio’s up there!” Karla said louder than she meant to.

“I know,” Rose said, her voice hard but full of sympathy. “I know he is. You’ll get him back. But not like this. Charging in is what got the last Harpooneers killed.”

Karla’s stomach burned. That was completely uncalled for.

But she couldn’t move this damn glider uphill by herself.

The people in the square were murmuring to each other, clumping up to defend their planes. Some of them shouted at the newcomes to identify themselves–these were the ones who hadn’t been warned by Ranson, or who hadn’t believed him. Now the truth was dawning on them.

The Torals must not have faced very heavy resistance down at the beach. Hardly any of their gleaming helmets seemed dented, and as they marched to fill the perimeter of the square with rows of marines, their formations had hardly a gap. Karla watched them with her pulse hammering out of her head, helpless to do anything: one fly caught in the web of a thousand spiders.

Griffin breathed deeply, knuckles whitening on Raven’s pilot bar. Jenny stood motionless, like one false move would shatter her façade. Rose, oddly, seemed calm, waiting for the storm to roll over them.

A taller soldier with a red cloak hanging off the shoulders of his plate mail dragged a bleeding form to the front of the lines of fighters. With one arm, he tossed the pummelled Adam into the dirt at his feet.

Karla bit her teeth. Adam sprawled where he lay, unconscious, a cut seeping on his forehead.

“This is the man who called himself your sheriff,” the officer declared, striding between his troops and the Rusters. “If anybody here is prepared to answer for his unacceptable behavior at our landing site, let him come forward now.”

“Dad!” shouted a voice from the crowd.

Calvin hadn’t brought his own family skycraft. He swiveled around when he yelled, and Karla knew at once he’d been making his way to Raven, trying to protect them. Like he was always trying to protect something.

The commander gave a signal. Immediately, three marines broke away from the line and rushed Calvin in a flying wedge. The first one slammed into him while the other two swarmed him with swift, efficient kicks.

“Bastards!” burst out of Jenny’s mouth.

The heat in Karla vacillated–fear for her friend warring with her desire to shout as well–but Jenny’s call was drowned out. The Rusters had charged.

The fight was short and bloody. The treasure hunters wielded wrenches and hammers against spears, swords, shields, and armor. Those who grabbed a piece of sheet metal to stop blows found it rent easily in half. The ring of steel on steel, the cries and oaths of the Rusters as the Torals cut them down, and the commander’s barked orders filled the air with a cloud of sound.

To Karla, it was all too quiet. Over too quickly. People from Rust Town, people she’d danced with, were being hurt before her eyes. Where was the thunderclap? Where was the sky itself tearing open to protest this injustice?

She surged forward. Barehanded, ready to tear their pretty helmets off. Jenny matched her steps.

Griffin’s arms clasped her around the chest. Before she could open her mouth, Karla felt Rose sieze her in the same hold.

“Let me go!” she howled at the healer.

“We did nothing,” Rose said in her ear. “We didn’t fight. We didn’t resist. We are normal non-suspicious people just out for a test flight in a plane that will never fly.”

“That won’t work! They won’t let us go!”

“There is no better chance. Karla, Kio has no better–”

“Don’t you dare tell me about–”

Freetown!

The commander’s voice caught both of their attentions. Karla wiggled out of Rose’s grip, but didn’t go any further. The man in the cloak had stepped atop a wooden box placed by two of his marines.

His lip curled.

“As you likely know,” he began, “the Toral Emperor claims the northern continent and all associated archipelagos as his jurisdiction. Until recently, it was not deemed necessary to leave military enforcers on this island, as His Truthfulness had been led to believe you were only a smattering of shepherds.”

He surveyed the beaten men and women before him, the planes with their propellors sitting still. Karla looked for Calvin, couldn’t find him past the crush of armored men.

The commander went on, “He was lied to. By his own subjects. His Truthfulness takes such things very seriously. The greatest aeronauts in his dominion, hiding out on an island, searching for treasure in the sky. A laughable notion, but one which the Imperial wisdom has not overlooked.” A short pause. “He has asked me to make this place safe for him to personally arrive and oversee the reclamation of the treasure for the good of all his people.”

Several voices broke out at once. Karla, however, was only focused on Rose. She could feel the healer straightening up behind her. Moments later, a tap on her shoulder and breath in her ear: “That one’s already wound, right?”

Rose was pointing at a skycraft. The people working on it had rushed the marines, and were now sitting in a line by the edge of the square, archers trained at the backs of their necks.

“Uh, yeah,” Karla answered, wavering. “If you took out the stopper pin it would take itself into the sea.”

“When that happens,” the commander shouted, “there will be no rebellion. No hint of unrest. No aircraft not officially licensed by the Toral Air Force. His Truthfulness has laid a claim. He will see none of you resist it.”

A light was growing bright in Karla’s peripheral vision. At first she thought the sun was coming out.

But the light was blue. The crystal was growing brighter, bright enough to shine on the clouds.

She looked up and her breath stopped. Far off on the edge of the cloudline hovered Castle Nashido.

“Of course,” the commander intoned, “these craft will be destroyed.”

Rose strode past her, put one hand on each of Dr. Griffin’s shoulders, and kissed him on the mouth. “I’m sorry,” she whispered in his ear, loud enough for Karla and Jenny to hear.

The commander asked, “Any questions?”

In one fluid motion, Rose yanked out the pin Karla had indicated, and kicked away the block stopping the skycraft’s wheels. The plane hurtled forward, racing toward the commander’s platform, forcing the soldier to leap backward, eyes almost as wide as Griffin’s. He crashed back into his two bodyguards, who barely managed to keep the weight of his armor standing.

The craft’s nose slammed into the ground. It whirled in a wide circle, digging gouges in the dirt, its tail striking another Toral and sending him flying into still more.

With Karla and Griffin stunned, it fell to Jenny to whisper-shout, “GO!

“Sieze her!” bellowed the Toral commander. “Sieze that woman!”

The soldiers broke ranks in their hurry to arrest Rose. The last thing Karla saw was the healer standing motionless with a veritable avalanche of mailed fists converging on her.

A second later, she and the others were running full-tilt on either side of Raven, pushing the craft up the mountain path.

I’m a self-supported artist, and I rely on donations to keep bringing you The Clockwork Raven. Check out my Patreon to see the bonus content you can get if you pledge. Even $1 a month helps–and gets you a personal shout-out!

Thanks to Lynne, David, Paul, and Thomas for their continued support.

Raven 1

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Somewhere around the time the rosy fingers of dawn poked over the top of the crescent mountains, Karla remembered she should probably have been tired by now.

It was a surface thing she’d observed a lot of in the last several days. People on the island always seemed to be tired. They were exhausted already when they greeted each other at morning market, snuck naps against their skycraft in the middle of the days’ work, couldn’t wait to get home to close their eyes.

On Nashido, being tired had never been possible. There was always the next thing that needed doing, or she and Kio would die.

Not that she hadn’t found her moments to mope. But the brooding seemed kind of embarrassing now, with the gift of distance. What she’d lacked in those moments, she knew now, was a mission.

By Mara, she thought, looking around at the mess of people and parts spilled through Dr. Griffin’s workshop and out into the courtyard and street, I’ve got a mission now.

It had amazed her how quickly the town had come together. The night before, half of them had been ready to riot, the other half to debate until spring came. Now, two dozen or more engineers were scattered around five shacks, trading parts, comparing blueprints, setting up a makeshift wind tunnel on the roof that Dr. Griffin was rushing to stop before it blew the ceiling off his bedroom.

Maybe it was stubbornness, determination not to let the Empire take everything they’d worked so many years for. Maybe it was the rush of finally having a decent shot at Nashido. But Karla preferred to believe in something else: in a spirit of the island that had infected its people. In a community they’d built, largely by accident.

Why else stay here, year after year, failing to get anywhere near the treasure, if Rust Town didn’t mean anything to them? Surely there were easier ways to get rich. Piracy came to mind. And some of them were decent engineers.

The day was overcast and grey, muggy with the prophecy of rain. The clang of tools and murmur of discussions drowned out the wind and sea as she watched the street from the workshop door. A messenger had come up carrying a bag of bolts a few minutes ago, rushing so quickly they had everyone concerned.

The dark side of today was that every time someone hurried up the road, she had to wonder if they brought news of a sighting of the Toral ships.

Karla and Jenny had been napping in shifts, so she didn’t expect to find the younger girl awake in the front room, making a pot of tea with shaking hands. She snatched a second tin cup and filled it, offering it to Karla with a wide smile.

“Did you sleep all right?” Karla asked. Jenny had bags under her eyes, but like Karla had apparently forgotten how to be tired.

She nodded. “Well enough. It’s just so exciting. Can’t sleep for long, y’know? I might miss something awesome.”

“Yeah, like a bunch of armored boats coming to kill us.”

Yet Karla understood. As one, their faces turned unprompted out the back door, toward the great shape squatting in the middle of the courtyard.

Fixing the damage the City Council had done to the craft had been the easy part. It was dangerous but straightforward damage that a lot of sewing and riveting was more than enough to correct. The extra gold coins that occasionally fell out helped to keep the volunteers going, too.

The harder part was the list of tasks Karla and Jenny and Griffin had been working through in what she’d privately dubbed Operation Save Kio. The list itself–retrofitting to Karla’s memories of the crafts as written about by the Rokhshan and their friends in the sky–was swiftly finished, but a problem lingered: the design didn’t make sense. Some of the necessary components for lift were there in force, while others were skimped on or scrapped entirely. Just after dawn, Karla had faced the one question she’d wanted to ignore.

These crafts might only have been built for descending, not rising. She might have accidentally directed the Rusters to build the world’s greatest glider, and nothing more.

Thus arose the creature in the garden: a perpetually adjusted, highly experimental bird that nonetheless stirred a deep longing in Karla’s heart. Jada and Grace were at work on it right now. Behind them, Dr. Griffin chewed out the two would-be wind-tunnel builders.

Jenny elbowed her gently. “He wants to name it after you, you know.”

“What? Karla? Karla the Airplane?” It didn’t sound right.

“He hasn’t told you?” Jenny giggled. “Not Karla. Raven.”

Karla swallowed. A memory of many days ago, many years, came back to her: of flying free, heedless of the tether holding her to Nashido, of feeling as though she and her craft ruled the entire sky and the world beneath it.

Here it was again. Her second chance at the clouds. Her new clockwork Raven.

Footsteps outside, and the door swung open. Karla’s heart jumped. Jenny lifted the teakettle like a club.

Rose entered the workshop directly into a storm of questions. “Are they coming?” Karla asked.

“How many?” Jenny asked.

“How much time?”

“Who can hold them off?”

“Can I help hold them off?”

“No, no!” Rose’s eyes looked as raw as everyone else’s. She waved her hands before her chest. “I need to talk to Griff. I don’t expect I’ll be able to stop either of you listening in.”

Karla and Jenny shook their heads in unison.

A moment later, when Dr. Griffin had sent the wind-tunnelers packing and nudged Grace and Jada inside to enjoy a cup of tea, Rose related her news with an ashen face.

“Coughing fits,” she said. “Two patients last night, and we just got a third one. I’ve got the Kalends watching them all for now.”

Griffin rubbed his stubble. “Any similarities?”

“One old lady, one a baby, one asthmatic. They’re all at risk, but something had to fire their symptoms all at once. Two could be coincidence. Three is a conspiracy.”

“Why do I get the feeling you’re not asking me for help with a diagnosis?”

“Because you’re the wrong kind of doctor, but you’re right.” Rose laid a hand on Raven, steadying herself. “I think I know what this is.”

Suddenly, it grew quiet enough for them to hear the waves far below after all. The wind whistled above. And four people stared at each other in the fenced-in yard, none of them prepared to speak the words they all held on their tongues.

Speaking it felt like plunging herself back into the darkness of the Inner Citadel. A flash of the bodies she had thrown from the castle shot before her eyes as she spoke. “Ash Cloud.”

“What killed my parents?” Jenny whispered.

“And my father,” Karla said.

“And my brother.” Griffin took a long breath, as though it would be the last he’d get for a while. “Do you have any other proof?”

“None so far. But people get accustomed to the smog around here. I can’t think what else would change the air quality uniformly.” Rose steadied herself against the skycraft’s body. “When you launch her up in the mountains, can you do me a favor?”

“Anything,” Griffin said, a little quickly.

Rose produced a small but bulky device from her vest pocket. Karla squinted at it. It resembled a baster with a beaker attached just below the bulb, with a piece of paper inside. Griffin took it, nodding like he knew what it was for.

“I’m not sure when we’ll be able to get you this data…” he began.

“Bring someone with you and send them down with the results. I need to know this as soon as possible.” She squeezed his hand. “Thank you, Griffin. I’m getting back to the–”

The door banged open. Karla tensed. She was busy enough refusing to believe that the Ash Cloud was returning. How much wronger was this morning planning to go?

Calvin staggered into the yard, his mother and Carpenter trailing.

“They’ve come,” he shouted, as everyone, including those on the roof, turned to look at him. “The Toral ships have been sighted.”

I’m a self-supported artist, and I rely on donations to keep bringing you The Clockwork Raven. Check out my Patreon to see the bonus content you can get if you pledge. Even $1 a month helps–and gets you a personal shout-out!

Thanks to Lynne, David, Paul, and Thomas for their continued support.

Horizon 10

Kio kept his footfalls quiet out of habit as he passed from the statuary stairs out onto the machine deck. In the nine days since he had agreed to partner with the god and his dragons to arm the castle, Raptor had never once objected to his comings and goings. Yet still, since the Benefactor had taken up residence on Nashido, Kio felt like a trespasser in his own home.

Having the Neogah’s fiery eyes on him wherever he stepped didn’t help. Two of them were circling the engines now: one patrolling far off, one hovering near the dark figure of Raptor. God and dragon stared into each other’s eyes, communing in some inscrutable conversation.

The far-away one glared at Kio, sending a shiver through him before winging off higher into the sky. Kio watched it go. The sky was clear tonight, a milky white river standing out against the sea of stars. The dragon headed toward the few dark clouds hovering in the high aether and soon disappeared among the constellations.

Once it was far enough away for the bone to begin to blend in with the sky, the creature was small enough to resemble a bird. Kio missed seagulls. They hadn’t come near ever since the dragons had begun patrolling. Days ago, he’d even tried to become the cat again and sniff out any hidden gulls with heightened senses–for companionship, not to eat. But he hadn’t been able to leave behind his human uncertainties and transform.

The other Neogah finished receiving its orders from Raptor and flew off as well, disappearing around the aft end of the castle. Raptor turned to where Kio stood lost in thought at the bottom of the stairs. “My lord of Rokhshan,” he called. “Come stand with me.”

Kio tried to stride purposefully toward him and nearly hit one of the lightning batteries. The great yawning shapes had looked unfamiliar in the dark.

Raptor waited patiently for Kio to join him at the edge of the deck, just above the propellors. “How has your night been?” asked the deity.

“Good,” Kio answered semi-honestly. He had spent a few hours reading up on aerial weapon systems in the library, a rare peace broken only by one of the gnarled Neogah trying to serve him dinner through the window. “Productive.”

“I’m glad.” The Benefactor resumed gazing out to sea. “Is there a reason you came to me?”

“Ah, there’s…” Kio suddenly felt his nerve faltering. “There’s nothing, really. Just wanted to see if you had any…thoughts. On stuff. No big deal.”

Raptor cut across him. “Look out there, Kio, and tell me what you see.”

That was a request Kio could comply with. He’d been doing an awful lot of it lately. But it still made his heart race: either Raptor had figured out exactly what he had really come to ask about, or…

…or, huh.

Painted across the horizon was a thin line of light, as would be thrown by a gathering of hundreds of small torches, lanterns, and glowing forges. The islands Nashido glided over led to it like a trail of breadcrumbs.

The castle was returning to the Big Island. Where Karla was almost surely living now.

Where, if there were any justice, she would stay. Stay and never return to the sky to challenge Raptor.

“What do you see?” Raptor asked.

“The island. The capital of the world.” Please, please, leave it alone!

Raptor chuckled. “Hardly. It’s a spit of mud and gravel on the edge of everything. But it is where our enemies based their last assault, and it is from there the next one will come.”

“You really think…” Kio deliberated. “You think the Harpooneers will attack again? Perhaps they could be persuaded to just stay down there?”

“And accept their own demise?” Raptor shook his head. “It is not that I fail to sympathize with them. Nobody can be fairly asked to sacrifice their nation that the rest of the world may live. But when called upon, we have to prove our mettle.”

Kio wondered if he would prove that sort of mettle. Did the settlers on the Big Island even understand what was happening? Did he?

“No, they will attack,” Raptor went on. “In their shortsightedness they will expose the Heartsphere to the Ash Cloud and threaten all life on the surface of this world. Just the same threat the sky faced ten years ago.”

A shudder ran through Kio. The sky kingdoms. The gardens of bones. There had been so many.

And the places still set at tables, the crumbling temples with sacrifices still moldering on the altars…all leading back to the crushes of people who hadn’t made it out in time.

The books told him there were ten million people living on the surface.

“Look beyond the island,” Raptor said.

“Beyond? To where?”

“Those lights are not the ones that distract me.”

To make sense of that, Kio lifted his eyes.

At first, he couldn’t see anything. But the more he squinted, the more he discerned that another band of lanterns lit up the horizon far beyond the town. “Is there another island?”

“Watch, and they will move closer. That is no island.”

Speaking in riddles–and all Kio could think about was what danger this was going to bring to Karla. Yet it didn’t take long for the Benefactor to explain.

“Those are the ships of a nation called the Toral Empire,” he said. “But a small part of a magnificent fleet. They have been dispatched to take the island.”

“How do you know?”

“That many ships are not necessary to hold a diplomatic discussion.”

Kio looked sideways at Raptor, hoping the god’s set visage would reassure him. It did, a little. Enough for him to ask: “How long do they have?”

“Better to ask how long we have.” Raptor turned to him. “The people of that town will flee to the skies even sooner if the Empire forces them–especially once their glowing crystal tells them we are close. The ships will arrive tomorrow, forcing all the pigeons out of their nests.”

He stalked away. “By dusk, we must be ready to fight whoever comes.”

Kio couldn’t follow him right away. He looked up instead: at the circling dragons, at the massive ballista launchers they had mounted on the battlements, at the net-throwers, the catapults, the glass cylinders and mysterious pipes with even deadlier and more sinister purposes he didn’t even know yet–and wondered how it was that after such a quick arming they still weren’t ready to fight.

If we wield this much force, how can we possibly turn it back if Karla shows up with the Harpooneers?

In his mind, he begged her to come quickly. Swiftly, like the wind, so they could all end this together.

I’m a self-supported artist, and I rely on donations to keep bringing you The Clockwork Raven. Check out my Patreon to see the bonus content you can get if you pledge. Even $1 a month helps–and gets you a personal shout-out!

Thanks to Lynne, David, Paul, and Thomas for their continued support.

Horizon 9

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Far above Rust Town, clouds were drifting across the moon. A sharp, ravenous, bony shape wheeled in the sky, too high for anyone on the isle to see.

Stationed on a grassy junction, Dr. Griffin held his breath. Rose held her face in her hands. In the alleyway ahead, Grace was putting the finishing touches on Logan. One more strike with an axe-handle dropped the unconscious brigand to the grass.

The pier creaked and warped. The people who lived there filled the alleys, stood on roofs and in doorways, handing up children too young to walk, passing mewling cats and dogs to safety.

None of them had seen Karla or Jenny. When Griffin asked them, hastening from one to the next, they all shook their heads, and folded their arms more tightly around the small ones they loved.

This has to work. It must. Rose’s idea had been too good not to be the stroke that saved them.

Grace tied Logan’s ankles together with a quick, deft knot. Nearby, Adam prowled between the restrained Council members, glaring without words. Whenever he looked at Griffin, his expression bore a unique mixture of suspicion and weariness.

But even he leapt up at the sound of his son’s voice.

Calvin yelped. A dry twang–the sound of a crossbow misfiring a half-loaded bolt. A squat shadow bolted from a hiding place near the teetering ruin.

Griffin’s knife flashed out. Rose shifted closer to him, bending her knees, ready to swing her wrench.

“Finn!” boomed a commanding shout from the roof of the hideout. “This is where it ends!”

Griffin had frozen. For a moment, all he could hear was the sound of his own breathing.

A black shape shot out of a hole in the half-collapsed roof of the City Council hideout. The raven beat its wings, hovering in place for a moment, then let out a squawk that sent a shockwave through the crowd of onlookers. People turned to pay attention to the black-winged bird.

Dan and Guy Carpenter had just dropped off their buckets of water and were banking in midair to return to the beach for more. But even they were forced to notice the raven. It surged higher until it was on a level with their small planes, and let out a smaller, more empathetic ca-caw. Without even seeming to decide, the brothers were drawn to follow.

The raven plunged. Griffin flinched. A streak blacker than the moonlit sky plunged toward the fleeing shape of Finn.

The twins grinned wickedly at each other. The raven had given them just the right idea.

The two craft raced each other to catch Finn as the City Council’s traitor darted onto a thoroughfare between bartering stalls. Guy landed first, catching Finn in the back of the head with a foot. Dan hit the stumbling bandit with his landing bar, sending him sprawling as the laughing Carpenters raced back up into the sky.

Gleaming gold coins fell from the prone Finn’s pockets, scattering over the dirt road like stars across the sky.

Griffin turned away. He didn’t need to see what the people of Rust Town would do to Finn now, or to know whether this reasonably strong evidence would be enough to exonerate him. With Rose by his side, he ran toward the cliffside deck.

The raven winged over their heads, settled over a rooftop, and transformed into Karla.

“Rust Town!” she shouted. Her voice came from somewhere very far from the foggy otherworld in which Griffin found himself.

Of course he had known. They’d all known that she could turn her body to another form, like in an old folktale. But to see it. To see all he thought he’d known of science squashed into nothing before his eyes…and in front of so many people

All the Rusters not following Adam and Grace to arrest Finn had turned, or jumped, or run, to somewhere they could see Karla. Their chattering filled the silence. Each was asking the ones they stood beside if they could trust their eyes, if they had seen what they thought they had.

Karla stood defiant. The glow of embers from the deck wreathed her silhouette in cold fire.

“I’m Karla Harpooneer. I am Mara Harpooneer’s daughter,” she said fiercely. “My father died in the sky. I’ve lived my life on Castle Nashido, the island you call the Sphere, and I have come back to the surface to find a way save my best friend in the world. And now I’ve found that way.”

She paused. “What I have to do…is save all of you, too.”

She turned to check on something behind her, and held up a hand to pause her speech. With the other, she reached down to pull a small, struggling shape up by both its arms: Jenny.

Rose choked out a sob. Griffin put his arm out to keep her from falling to her knees. He was, at this point, willing to believe that Karla’s scheme here could work.

If publicly unmasking herself indeed was a scheme, and not just something she’d been waiting to do since she fell to earth.

Jenny knelt on the roof with Karla’s arm around her shoulders. They whispered something to each other that the crowd couldn’t hear. Karla seemed to be trying to get Jenny to get down and go to Rose, but Jenny kept shaking her head. Finally, Karla nodded, and straightened up again to face the crowd.

“The Imperial Navy is coming,” she said. “They want the treasure on Nashido, and they’ll never allow me to save Kio Rokhshan. So there’s only one thing we can do to save this town and the lives you’ve built here. We have to get the castle first.”

“And I suppose you know how?” someone shouted.

“I do,” Karla answered. “You’ve all been using my mother’s aircraft designs for ten years. They haven’t worked, but they’re part of the story. Dr. Griffin has gotten farther than any of you by deviating from the designs, but he doesn’t have the complete story either. But with my knowledge of skyflight, his and Jenny’s innovations, and the work ethic of all of you, we can get a plane to Nashido before those boats arrive.”

Jada Carpenter had returned up the hill with a bucket of water she quickly dumped on the blaze. Now, having settled her craft, she spoke up. “You’re mad. We haven’t been able to reach the sphere for generations, and now you’re proposing we do it in a day?”

“The generations led up to the day!” Karla advanced across her rooftop. “There is no tomorrow without all those yesterdays! But listen: this is only going to work if you all stop fighting each other. You only have two enemies, and neither of them are Dr. Griffin, or Healer Rose, or Master Ranson, or even the City Council. Finn betrayed the whole island, but we have nothing to gain from taking revenge on him now. Our enemies are the Emperor and the sky. Nothing else.”

Griffin clenched his fist in his pocket to silence himself. He couldn’t speak first. This had to come from outside Karla’s circle of allies.

A long silence.

Then: “I’m with you.”

Grace McConnell had started the flood. “Me too,” her husband said, coming to her side. Calvin raced up to join them, crossbow slung over his back, and his father clapped him on the shoulder and drew him close.

Guy and Dan Carpenter landed. “We’re in too!” shouted one of them.

“So am I,” proclaimed their mother.

“Mmph,” said Finn, who was gagged.

The Kalend blacksmiths were next. Then came others. Griffin and Rose joined in when they felt they could, and Griffin locked eyes with Karla, making sure she knew he was there to help. The chants of “Mara!” started from one corner, but soon were overwhelmed by the chants of “Karla!”–chants that made Jenny’s face light up as she grabbed her new friend’s hand, that rose up into the night and overwhelmed the wind. And if there had been any dragons wheeling about in those stars, they would have heard the shouts too.

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